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In the past we were content with meandering through many worlds, slaying countless opponents, shooting nameless henchmen, and stomping on many a goomba without any serious thought to the moral implication of such actions.

Game Developer, Staff

June 22, 2009

6 Min Read

In the past we were content with meandering through many worlds, slaying countless opponents, shooting nameless henchmen, and stomping on many a goomba without any serious thought to the moral implication of such actions. It can be granted we performed these feats with fevered enthusiasm but now many a gamer has come to expect more meaningful choices and meaningful reactions to those choices in the game world. Thus the injection of moral duality, attempts to make choices more difficult and make us carry the burden of such choices.

There are several ways in which morality has been applied in games, more often than not these choices are clear cut right and wrong, good and evil. In some cases there is the third choice of neutrality, however what is even less clear or less utilised effectively are choices shaded grey.



Grand Theft Auto attempted to blur the lines between good and evil with the unfortunate Nico Bellic. Here was a man trying to lose his demons, a man who wanted some closure on his past. Yet this depth is more of an exception as he mindlessly steals and murders most who cross his path. The choices we find ourselves with are merely dualities between kill or not kill, and while such choices can be quite powerful in the right character the game fails to bridge an emotional connection between us and Nico. Clearly the developers wanted to craft a mature, morally conflicted character yet it worked at odds with the type of game the player wants to play ultimately creating a hollow display of morality

However BioShock presented the dual brand of morality in a somewhat effective manner. After a challenging fight with a Big daddy the fate of one of Raptures' Little Sisters lay in your hands. Do you choose to harvest all of her ADAM thus murdering her, or do you leave take a portion of ADAM and let her live? While many of us would never harm a child, let alone a female child the game attempts to alter your perception by decrying these girls as abominations, individuals who are less than human.



This repeated choice decides the fate of Rapture but is ultimately an arbitrary choice as far as morality goes. While they attempt to dress up the choice with the dilemma of whether choosing to murder her now and wield instant rewards, or save her but leave ourselves genetically disadvantaged, falls at the seems. We receive gifts should we choose to save the  Little Sisters, gifts that balance out our choice of "doing the right thing". It is certainly a good example of good game balance but yet is this a good display of morality? More often than not taking the high moral road results in less of a tangible reward, and more one for good conscience.

BioShocks' Rapture is one that has fallen to the allure of splicing our DNA to improve ourselves yet at the cost of our humanity. We see how a utopian vision had fallen under the egos of visionaries and underlying Social Darwinism philosophy causing such dystopic outcomes. Yet when we step into Rapture the decision to descend to their depths is barely given any thought. Why can't I play the game without splicing? While those decisions are explained through a clever plot device it is a missed opportunity in some cases. This of course is also a game design decision as you wouldn't be able to progress in the game without Plasmids, and furthermore it would obviously make this game fairly difficult and boring.  



In life there are choices that are shades of grey, ones that require a heavy sacrifice or burden to be shouldered, but decisions that nonetheless are neither right or wrong but are feebly justified by our the limits of our language. This is none more illuminated in many of Mass Effect's own illustration of morality. Midway through the story you are given the choice to either save the last of a species, or return them to the pages of history. While it seems like a clear cut good and evil choice you know the species to be the cause of many deaths, a race that started a war, and while you are told that they had no choice it is still a decision that is difficult to make. Do you commit this race to genocide once again or do you risk exposing the universe to a potential threat by letting them live?

It decisions such as these that make Mass Effect such a memorable experience. You become attached to game world as you come to shape the direction the universe takes. They become a reflection of how the universe and the Council come to view and thus judge humanity as a whole. Ultimately you are constantly watched and assessed by your actions. While the moral conundrums you solve do not appear, so far at least, to amount to an overriding choice the moral choices nonetheless require a great deal of thought. Nonetheless they still fall into a duality, while many who have may argue that paragon & renegade are far removed from good & evil it is simply the same taste in a different bottle.

Yet there have been implementations of morality that have been less obvious, and possible even unintentional. In Mass Effect your morality is divided into paragon & renegade with two bars representing this duality but while handy this can not really considered reflective of how moral someones is judged. Looking back at Metal Gear Solid, Splinter Cell and SWAT 4 you are given the option of performing non-lethal attacks, ones that immobilise rather than destroy. For Solid Snake it is a tranquilizer gun, Sam Fisher a blow to the back of the head, and in SWAT 4 a tazer. Each of these methods are intrinsic in more humane ways of dealing with dangerous people, not by some flashing bar or visual discrepancy, but by how it is reflected in reality. While this still falls into the realm of 'to kill or not to kill' it does demonstrate how such moral decisions don't need to be so obvious.

So is the inclusion of morality in games creating more meaningful choices? Clearly from the games so far they are utilising morality as an integral aspect to the games story, mechanics and characters, but it is not enough. Truly meaningful choices are so few and far between that they are leaving the weight of such decisions hollow. We need to feel that our choices are not only affecting the game world and the characters within it but connect with the decision such that we come to regret or even relish in our choices. Until a game is willing to sacrifice elements of gameplay for deeper moral choices, ones with no clear right or wrong but rather a justified choice that would seem feeble if explained and carry that throughout the game, then we may only ever hit the cusp of a moral game.

But what do you think? Should games include more moral ambiguity? Or do we need to stop yearning for more serious games?

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